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Once Upon a Time in Somalia
Dr. Terry Lacey, Arab News —April 19, 2008



My first trip to Somalia was as a young European Commission official accompanying my director general for development in 1976 on a mission to see President Siad Barre about the implementation of the African, Caribbean & Pacific Agreement (ACP) between the European Community and Somalia.

We did not realize how lucky we were that Somalia was in one piece with one president. It is still not clear if and when we will see that again. There was an illusion of normality in Mogadishu contrasted to now, but the destabilization process had already started because the Ogaden war was just beginning. Now Somalia is in at least three or four pieces — the Baidoa transitional federal government and the south, Mogadishu, and Puntland, the relatively stable statelet in the north.

In between warlords and factions what was once at least nominally a nation tries to decide if it wants to be a nation once again (if the Irish, with their similar history of colonialism, occupation, militias and partition, will forgive borrowing the phrase).

In our 1976 visit we flew in a little plane from Wilson airport in Nairobi, refueled in southern Somalia, and then to Mogadishu. We stayed with President Barre in his guesthouse. In the daytime we flew in a Russian helicopter to see projects and refugee camps, or had meetings. The role of the refugee camps was to attract refugees in from Ethiopia, to strengthen support for Somali claims on the Ogaden.

In the evenings the president was most hospitable, and we had fine dinners. Then at night, being then a young chap, I could go off to visit the town! When I wanted to get back to my guesthouse in the morning moonlight I did not need to find a taxi. The security people discretely looking after me found me and brought me home.

Although I remember more the novelty of seeing Mogadishu for the first time and the contradictions of the lifestyle we visitors could lead there contrasted to the reality unfolding in front of us, some of the discussions I sat in on were more to the point. Barre requested trucks and bulldozers for agriculture, and my astute boss, who was an agricultural engineer and an ex-general, told him he could have enough heavy equipment to do what was needed in Somalia, but not enough to improve Ethiopia!

I remember Barre replied, “so Somalia proposes and Europe disposes.” I should have understood better what it all meant for the future of Somalia, but at the time it was hard to grasp that these were the seeds of the destruction of national stability.

I remember my boss asking Barre if he minded that the new Lome Convention might have a civil rights clause. I remember him answering that so long as he could talk about Northern Ireland, he didn’t mind Europeans talking about Somalia.

I also remember asking him why he got his police planes from East Germany and his military planes from West Germany (or was it the reverse?) and he replied that it was because he had a great sense of balance. My great grandfather was an Irish trick cyclist in an American circus, so I agreed that a sense of balance was very important. Since the 1950s many African leaders must have felt like trick cyclists in an American circus, although during the Cold War the Russian circus put on quite a good rival act.

President Barre showed practicality in balancing his aeroplanes between East and West whilst ensuring he had reliable German technology up until 1976. However once he made his move in support of the Front for the Liberation of Western Somalia and started the Ogaden war then he destabilized his regime, leading to breaking links with Russia and Cuba and subsequently undermining his economic relations with the West. The seeds for the breakup of modern Somalia were scattered then, and the rest was history unfolding as the difficulties caused by the war, along with drought, undermined the economy and social cohesion, creating political tensions within the army.

Since the end of the Cold War Somali politics appears to be even more complex, but the complexity had been there all the time. The Cold War had encouraged top-down regimes to hold fragile countries together.

However some of the positions taken more recently by the West have made things more complicated. Starting with the attempted action against Gen. Aideed that proved counter productive as well as a tragedy.

Reorientation of the global war on terrorism to a set of disaggregated military and nonmilitary solutions, with increasing emphasis on talking to militias rather than fighting them, and toward great reliance on nonmilitary solutions and development, is taking time. The GWOT made local power struggles part of a global conspiracy. This tended to make it harder to solve local problems in their own context and exaggerated external links.

Thirdly using the Ethiopian Army as a surrogate against the Shariah Court militias may have been counterproductive. The defeated Shariah Courts leadership is now in Eritrea and the US has formally put the Mogadishu based Al-Shabaab group on the terrorist list. This makes it harder for the federal government of Prime Minister Hassan Hussein to negotiate a deal with the Shariah Courts, of which Al-Shabaab is apparently still part.

It’s also hard to explain in a post-9/11 world with all the sensitivities about terrorism and Islam that the Shariah Courts movement might represent to some local people a relative advance on the disadvantages of warlordism.

If you go back to when Europe was getting away from feudal monarchs and warlords and the Reformation, the Europeans also resorted to religious fundamentalism whilst working up ideas on parliamentary democracy and progress.

Western powers have to learn to distinguish between political Islam they can live with and genuine threats to national security. Turkey has an Islamic party in power, is a member of NATO, has security cooperation with Israel, and has mass seaside tourism on the South Coast which is frequented by Western and Israeli tourists.

If and when Turkey joins the EU, the hijab may become more common in the country, alongside economic and social progress. When political Islam is against corruption and old-style politics and for economic and social change, but retaining Islamic identity, then it may not be a threat to the West. This applies in Indonesia, to the PKS and the Malaysian PAS seems to be learning the same lessons.

The United Nations, the European Union and others are now trying to see if Somalia wants to be a nation once again. Somalis needs services wherever they live, and not a lottery on infant mortality depending on local political status. In the long-term economic and social development is the strongest card of the international community and the best lever to help Somalia arrive at a constitutional setup that people can accept, recognizing local identities but providing a framework for service delivery. The design of this entity has to be locally contrived to suit Somali conditions.

There is no standard Western-style unitary state model. The USA itself is a federal state.

The EU is a kind of confederal entity of national states, although with some federal attributes. Switzerland is made of autonomous cantons and Belgium is increasingly a federal state, so why not Somalia?

It is clear the reunification of Somalia will not be achieved by military means. The way forward is to let Somalis work it out for themselves without interfering too much, and slowly rather than too fast. The right context is to minimize foreign interference and maximize external support for positive Somali-led measures to provide services people need. In other words, to end the war on terror and to fight the war on want.

— Dr. Terry Lacey is a development economist who writes from Jakarta, Indonesia, on modernization in the Muslim world, investment and trade relations with the EU and Islamic banking. 

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